Connecticut Defeats Central Florida 77-71

March 18, 2005

By JIMMY GOLEN
AP Sports Writer

WORCESTER, Mass. (AP) - Defending champion Connecticut withstood a furious charge by Central Florida to keep its hopes of a repeat alive.

Charlie Villanueva scored 22 points for the Huskies, who opened a 19-point lead and held on to beat Central Florida 77-71 in the Syracuse Regional on Friday despite career highs of 29 points and seven 3-pointers by Gary Johnson.

UConn (23-7) will play North Carolina State, a No. 10 seed that advanced to the second round with a 75-63 victory over Charlotte in the earlier game. But that could be it for the second-seeded Huskies if they don't snap out of the slump that has stymied them for the last three games.

Central Florida (24-9) had won eight straight games, but the Atlantic Sun champions fell behind by 16 points at the half and by as many as 19, 62-43, with 13:06 left. UConn still led by 15 when the Golden Knights scored nine consecutive points to make it 68-62.

UConn led 74-65 with 62 seconds left when Justin Rose made a layup to cut it to seven points. The Huskies called a timeout, and coach Jim Calhoun seemed to struggle to get off the bench, sitting there alone while his players gathered around to await his instructions.

Central Florida forced consecutive jump balls, getting possession on the second with 54 seconds left. But the UConn defense wouldn't let the Golden Knights get a shot off for 30 seconds. Kingsley Edwards' layup cut the deficit to five points, but only 23.2 seconds remained and the Golden Knights were forced to start fouling.

Marcus Williams made three of four free throws down the stretch.

UConn won nine of 10 to finish the regular season and tie Boston College for the Big East's regular-season title. But since then, the Huskies haven't played well.

The Huskies struggled to get past Georgetown in the conference quarterfinals. Against Syracuse the next game, they fell behind by 21 points and rallied to within four but couldn't come any closer.

Coming into the first round as a heavy favorite, UConn had just one big weakness, and it nearly became a problem.

Williams crumpled to the court with 6:56 left in the first half when he appeared to stretch out his right knee as he took a step. As the teams cleared the floor for the timeout, Calhoun walked out to midcourt and held out his arms as if to say, "Well, what do I do now?"

The Huskies already have lost two backup point guards this season: A.J. Price has been out since October with a brain hemorrhage, and Antonio Kellogg was suspended this week for violating team policy. That left them with forward Ryan Thompson to back up Williams, along with Frenchman Sami Ameziane, who has one assist in 15 minutes in his entire college career.

Make it 16 minutes.

Calhoun sent Thompson in to replace Williams, but on the Huskies' second trip downcourt he was called for carrying on his dribble. Ameziane went into the game, but almost as soon as he did Williams was back off the bench and headed for the scorer's table.

He showed no ill effects of the injury, though he didn't really need his knees for the nice alley-oop he threw to Hilton Armstrong to make it 36-21 with 3:14 left in the first half. Or to thread a pass downcourt through two defenders to Rudy Gay with 1:29 left in the half.